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$250,000 LGBT homeless youth initiative launched through cooperative effort in South Florida

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

In an unusual show of statewide cooperation, eight South Florida groups and Florida itself have launched a coalition to fight homelessness among LGBT youth.

It is believed that 40 percent of homeless youth are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to Robin Schwartz, executive director of Aqua Foundation for Women, the group that first conceived the LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Initiative.

"It struck me: How can Miami not have services for LGBTQ youth that get kicked out of their home?" said Schwartz, whose group has usually given scholarships and funded women's health projects. "I was compelled. This is exactly the kind of work Aqua should be doing. I'm one of the founders of Aqua and I know from the beginning we always wanted to be an organization that uncovered the needs of the community and then found ways to get them filled. I asked what was stopping this from moving forward. Of course it was funding."

First, Schwartz and her board engaged the group's male members, called Aqua Men.

After a men's dinner in which the homeless initiative was proposed, state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, told Schwartz he was "inspired" by what he heard.

Richardson, Florida's first out gay state lawmaker, helped secure $100,000 in state funding to pay for LGBTQ-inclusive lodging through Citrus Health Network in Hialeah, which donated another $50,000 to the initiative.

The Republican House and Senate approved Richardson's request during the 2013 legislative session and the governor did not veto the line item, he said Wednesday at a Good Government Initiative luncheon Wednesday at University of Miami.

"I don't think that happened by accident," Richardson said during a panel discussion about LGBT rights in South Florida.

After funding seemed certain for the Citrus deal, Schwartz approached two other South Florida philanthropic groups, The Miami Foundation and Our Fund, seeking to split $100,000 to hire a liaison and help feed the homeless youth in the program.

"How cool would it be if the three main LGBT foundations in South Florida, if the three of us did this together, partnered equally," Schwartz said. "First of all, we'd be funding something super important. Secondly, what a great thing to tell our community, that 'Guess what, we're all working in this together for one common cause.'"

Our Fund, a gay-oriented foundation based in Fort Lauderdale, and Miami Foundation's LGBT Community Projects Fund, agreed to share the $100,000 with Aqua Foundation.

Each group will contribute $33,333.33 this year. Aqua Foundation, which holds a fundraising party Saturday night in South Beach, has also committed to help funding the program for three years. Other partners are Miami Coalition for the Homeless, SAVE Dade, Pridelines Youth Services and The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth.

"The issue of LGBTQ homelessness has been the priority for The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, Pridelines Youth Services, and The Alliance Service Partnership Council (Family Counseling Services of Greater Miami, Jewish Community Services of South Florida, Pridelines, Safe Schools South Florida, and YES Institute) for about two years," wrote Carla Silva, executive director of The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, in an email to the Miami Herald. "Youth experiencing homelessness were supported on a case-by-case basis with few and fragmented community resources. The group’s initial goal was to explore housing programs that would be applicable in Miami-Dade County. Through their zealous efforts identifying possible solutions and funding sources, the present initiative collaborative emerged."

Last week, the homeless initiative hired a liaison, Landon "LJ" Woolston, a transgender man born and raised in Miami.

"Fortunately, I've never been homeless. I have felt emotionally homeless at times. I don't really have a supportive family. That certainly is a motivating factor in why I want to do this work," said Woolston, 30, who graduated from UM's psychology program in 2005. "Had I come out as trans when I was a minor, the potential to have been homeless may have been there. Which is why I always tell youth to come out when they're safe."

Woolston is working out of two agencies that deal directly with LGBT youth: The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth in North Miami and Pridelines in Miami Shores.

"My job is really two-fold. I will be one of the care coordinators on staff at the Alliance. I will be managing cases, care coordinating for kids who are homeless, or on the verge of homelessness, or at risk for homelessness," he said. "My other role ... is to train providers and to create more inclusive spaces for youth countywide, specifically around homelessness, so that anybody facing these issues can ideally seek out services where they will be affirmed and included."

Already, Woolston is working with one homeless 17-year-old.

"Our goal for the program is to work with 60 youths who are on the verge of homelessness and 30 that are facing homelessness directly," Woolston said. "In other major cities, some of the major shelters get as many as 500 requests per week from LGBT youth looking for a bed."

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